Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” concept has certainly captured the imagination – and the desire for a much needed move away from the centralised stranglehold on power in the Westminster/Whitehall bubble. It may well have contributed to his party’s unexpected victory in the General Election. The media have loved it: the process in achieving the Manchester “settlement” (“Devo Manc”) has been described in detail; commentators have lauded it as a necessary development. The race for “who next after Manchester” has hotted up, with scheming on how to avoid the unpleasant bits and how much to sacrifice in order to do so. It has left Labour floundering, uncertain how to respond. No one will reject the idea – indeed they are wishing they had thought up that very evocative phrase themselves.
So what’s not to like?
Lots of things, according to participants at the Northern Convention Conference, held in Huddersfield on 20th June, hosted by Liverpool and Manchester Unlock Democracy groups, the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, and “Sheffield for Democracy”: an invited audience of 70 from across the North West, North East and Yorkshire debated how to take forward that desire for much-mentioned but as yet unachieved subsidiarity. Were the supposed powers to Manchester as great as had been reported, or was it a smoke screen to put the responsibility for making even further cuts on the local politicians? There is no sign of any move to grant local authorities the fiscal powers the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee had unanimously recommended, or indeed fiscal powers to the “powerhouses”. So a very limited move away from Westminster.
In 2012, the referenda on elected mayors largely rejected them. Those referenda are being ignored with elected mayors being insisted on as part of the “gun to the head” approach to various “city regions” ( collections of local authorities) as the price for their “powerhouse”. And there are no proposals for consultations, let alone agreements, with local electorates. Is the working assumption that the barons in our towns and cities know best? And who gave the Chancellor the authority to implement constitutional change?
Some people thought the tactics should be to welcome the proposals but to seek to move beyond them, including needing popular approval; that the natural conglomerations of local authorities that had associated economies was the rational way forward. Others want a parliament for the whole of the North; a larger group want regional parliaments or assemblies for the three components, which do have resonances of identity, albeit not so strong as, say, the nationhood of Scotland. There are already new parties which stood in the recent election as “Yorkshire First“ and “North East First“.
So lots of passion, lots of ideas, lots of different opinions on the current proposals. And lots of other local and regional discussions taking place. Will it lead to a civil society convention, for the North, or for England, or even the UK? Watch this space!
Guest Blogger: Vicky Seddon, Sheffield Member and Chair of Unlock Democracy